Pell Grants as Performance-Based Scholarships? An Examination of Satisfactory Academic Progress Requirements in the Nation’s Largest Need-Based Aid Program


The Federal Pell Grant Program is the nation’s largest need-based grant program. While students’ initial eligibility for the Pell is based on financial need, renewal is contingent on meeting minimum academic standards similar to those in models of performance-based scholarships, including a grade point average (GPA) requirement and ratio of credits completed compared to those attempted. In this study, we describe federal satisfactory academic progress (SAP) requirements and illustrate the policy’s implementation in a statewide community college system. Using state administrative data, we demonstrate that a substantial portion of Pell recipients are at risk for Pell ineligibility due to their failure to meet SAP GPA or credit completion requirements. We then leverage the GPA component of the policy to explore the impacts of failure to meet standards on early college persistence and achievement, earning a credential, and transferring to a 4-year college using two methodological approaches: regression discontinuity (RD) and difference-in-differences (DD). Our results across the two approaches are mixed, with the RD providing null estimates and the DD indicating statistically significant impacts, including a negative effect on early college persistence. We conclude by discussing the implications for future research.

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The research reported here was supported by the Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education, through Grant R305C110011 to Teachers College, Columbia University. The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not represent views of the Institute or the U.S. Department of Education.

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Correspondence to Lauren Schudde.

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Schudde, L., Scott-Clayton, J. Pell Grants as Performance-Based Scholarships? An Examination of Satisfactory Academic Progress Requirements in the Nation’s Largest Need-Based Aid Program. Res High Educ 57, 943–967 (2016).

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  • Higher education policy
  • Community college
  • Need-based aid
  • Persistence
  • College completion
  • Financial aid
  • Satisfactory academic progress